The Book of Esther is a strange and difficult book for several reasons, first and foremost because it seems to be non-theological. (I suppose it also doesn’t help that it’s usually not in our pew Bibles!) There is no mention of God or God’s Presence. There is no praying or worship. But the book is very important to Jews because it records the deeds of a woman who was prepared to risk everything to save her people from the threat of genocide. She is a heroine and her story is the basis for the Festival of Purim, at which time the whole book is read in the synagogue. Celebrated in the 12th month of the Jewish year, it is the one Jewish holiday which centers on fun—costumes, prizes, noisemakers, and treats, including special holiday treats called hamantashan (which means “Haman’s pockets).
On that holiday, the story is told of a beautiful young Jewish woman in Persia named Esther and her cousin Mordecai, who raised her as if she were his daughter. Now the king has divorced his queen, Vashti, and wants to take a new virgin bride. Esther was taken to the King’s house to become part of the harem, where she was loved more than any other woman by the king and made his queen, because he did not know that she was a Jew. The villain is Haman, an arrogant advisor to the king, who plots to destroy the Jewish people because Mordecai will not bow to him.
Mordecai persuades Esther to intercede for the Jewish people with the king even though this was very dangerous for her. Esther fasts for three days to prepare herself and then goes to the King. The Jewish people were ultimately saved and Haman was hanged on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. The word Purim means “lots” and refers to the lottery that Haman used to choose the date for the massacre. When the Megillah, or scroll, of Esther is read, it is customary in the synagogue to boo, hiss, stamp feet, and rattle noisemakers whenever the name of Haman is mentioned. Chapter 7, from which most of our reading comes, depicts Esther as very clever, a model of courage. She has taken the time to set the scene and has thought out what to do.
The Book of Esther is well known for the fact that it does not mention God at all in the text. There is no real religious motivation for anything that the characters do. But there is the presence of religious practice, such as fasting and the very character of Esther lends us to connect that to her own faith and spiritual foundation. And when it all comes down to it, Esther embodied the voice of God as it counteracted cultural authority, something we all struggle with even today.
So what do we do with those passages where God is not mentioned, where there seems to be no lesson from God, where in an odd sort of way, God is not? You know, for the last several weeks, we’ve been reading about wisdom, that elusive, hard-to-nail-down thing that we are told is of God, perhaps even that it IS God. And yet, it’s not obvious. In fact, sometimes, God’s presence seems downright elusive.
The truth is that God probably was not missing from this book at all; rather, God’s Spirit and God’s way of moving us to be who God envisions us to be is sometimes not as obvious as wind or fire but is rather embodied in the very Creation, the very humanity that God shaped into the image of the Godself. It is, then, a story of God, embodied. God is always and forever still God but maybe this story is a reminder that God does not control the world with seemingly robotic movement but rather breathes a piece of the Godself into each of us. Perhaps, then, the will of God has nothing to do with fate or plans or some sort of pre-ordained destiny that is laid before us and on which we must tread but is instead handed to us for such a time as this. Perhaps those places where it seems that God is not are the places where we are called to be.
Hebrew scholar Richard Elliott Friedman has written a book called The Disappearance of God. In it he chronicles what Barbara Brown Taylor calls the “divine recession.” “Working his way from Genesis to the minor prophets, he paints a portrait of God that fades as it goes. Divine features that were distinct at the beginning of the story grow blurry as God withdraws, stepping back from human beings so that they have room to step forward.” (From When God is Silent, by Barbara Brown Taylor, p. 53.
Room to step forward…maybe that’s the whole point. Maybe that’s what the Book of Esther is about—the story of one who responded to the room God made to step forward, to act not upon our individual understanding of God but rather to respond to who God envisions God to be. There is so much work to be done. God never envisioned doing it for us; otherwise, we would have been mere robots in the world and God would have instead sat there as some sort of divine programmer. Instead, God created time and space such that we are experiencing now and called us to fill it with God’s love and God’s grace and the piece of the Godself that we are called to show to the world. For such a time as this, we are grateful. For, this, my friends, is the very Presence of God.
- What is your response to this passage?
- How does this speak to courage or to faith?
- What could be learned for us today in the society in which we live?
- What stands in the way of our being true to our faith and standing up for others against the culture in which we live?
- What does it mean for you that God’s name is not mentioned?
- What do you think of the whole notion of God providing us space enough to step forward?
NEW TESTAMENT: James 5: 13-20
The author of James has told the readers that what they pray for they will receive, unless they ask with wrong motives. Now, in his conclusion to the book (probably a sermon), he treats prayer more extensively. Whether you suffer or are “cheerful” – pray! If any be seriously ill call upon those in official positions in the church to “pray over them” and anoint them, symbolizing Christ’s healing presence and power.
This prayer made in faith will restore health—maybe not always physical or emotional health like we often imagine it, but certainly a wholeness, a unity with God that might not have been there before. Anointing with prayer will also restore to spiritual health any who have intentionally deviated from God’s ways. Sins should be mutually confessed, to attain integrity with God; “pray for one another”. Prayer is “powerful and effective”. Then if anyone strays from integrity with God (“the truth”) and is brought back to oneness with God through the prayer of “another” member of the community, either the one who has drifted away or the one who prays will be saved from spiritual “death” and will receive extensive forgiveness. In other words, rather than sit in judgment of each others’ wrongs, we should help each other, guide each other back to a connection with God and to a wholeness of mind and spirit. The wisdom of James leaves the door open for the return of the prodigal.
The writer of James is not blurring the lines between those who believe in Christ and those who don’t; rather, he is displaying and commanding a generous openness to those who are doing power deeds in the name of God in a way that is not within the body of Christian believers. There is a hopefulness and an optimism about these outsiders. There is no exclusion.
In the final words of his epistle James has something to say about this. It is not that the writer is soft on sin. He has unequivocally asserted the interconnection between Christian believing and Christian practice. He has castigated the rich, the verbose, the hypocrites and the self-sufficient, who seek to conduct their affairs outside the scope of God’s care. James is hardly indifferent to believers’ tendencies to wander into sin. It is important to recognize, though, that he is not eager to exclude believers when they do wander into sin. Rather, the final (and most important) task for believers is to bring back those who wander away. The aim of Jesus’ generosity toward those on the margins of the group seems to be to draw them in closer. Once drawn by the generosity of Jesus inside the circle of disciples, believers must not allow each other to wander away.
Further, James calls us to display a profound level of compassion for our sisters and brothers in Christ. Should believers wander into any of the sins James has incisively analyzed in the body of his letter, it falls to their sisters and brothers to seek them out and turn them around. The degree to which James imagines believers to be dependent upon each other is staggering. Essentially, the writer of James is saying that the state of our souls depends on the compassion that we show toward others as well as the compassion that they show toward us.
Back to the idea of prayer, God obviously does not need to be persuaded to care about us. The language of prayer, like the symbolic oil and the symbolic touch, engages us (rather than God) in compassionate outreach. It reminds us that we are connected to each other and that we need each other as well as God. We are here for each other—to pray, to comfort, to cry for, to cry with, to laugh, to stand up for, to reprimand, to understand, to welcome back, and to love. God can do all that, but God calls us to be the vehicle through which it is done.
Another spin on this is told by Mary Hinkle Shore in her essay “Being Church”:
Is there any congregation in the whole Christian church on earth that you don’t have to leave when you are having a problem that you can’t hide? Think about the people who have disappeared in the last six months from the pews you know best. What’s going on? Illness? Job loss? Divorce? Hardly anyone leaves church because things are going well for them.
And to those of us still in the pews, have you ever heard yourself lying when asked at church how things are after your recent loss, or how you’re holding up while someone close to you looks for a job, or how your kids are doing? What would it take for Christians to tell the truth to each other?
James envisions a community of people who can do just that. If we had started this reading just one verse sooner, we would hear James say, “Let your ‘Yes’ be yes and your ‘No’ be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.” It’s a call to the simplest (not to say easiest) truth telling. (From Mary Hinkle Shore, “Being Church”, available at http://maryhinkle.typepad.com/pilgrim_preaching/2003/09/being_church.html, accessed 22 September)
- How does this passage speak to you?
- What meaning does this shed on prayer for you?
- What does it mean for us to be connected to each other, to have compassion for each other and to stand up for each other? What does it mean to welcome back? What does it mean to love?
- What would that mean in our society?
- What keeps us from doing that for each other?
- What does it mean for you to “be church”?
GOSPEL: Mark 9: 38-50
The disciples have previously argued over who of them is the greatest. Jesus has told them not to seek position or prestige. Now he rebukes them for attempting to stop an exorcist curing in his name. Jesus explains his tolerance: such a person will be slow to speak ill of him. God does work through those who are not followers of Jesus. The writer of Mark emphasizes this by using a proverb. For him, the “reward” is entry into the Kingdom and the state of union with God awaiting us there. Those who treat Jesus’ followers with kindness will be so rewarded.
On the other hand, putting an obstacle in the way of immature Christians (“little ones”), will lead to condemnation in our own lives. Anyone who shakes the faith of others (“causes you to stumble”) is a danger to the community of faith. Then the use of the illustration of salt is sort of strangely tacked on the end. Stephen Fowl says this about it:
If you are reading this column hoping to get some insight into Mark 9:49-50, you can stop now. These verses are intensely obscure; the commentaries offer little help; neither I nor anyone I know has received a special revelation explaining the text. Let us simply agree to move on to other matters. (From Stephen Fowl, “Search and Restore”, from The Christian Century, September 19, 2006, available at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3428, accessed 22 September, 2009.)
But, think about it. Salt has a multitude of meanings—it purifies, it seasons, it preserves. It is a nutrient that the body needs but cannot produce and an antiseptic. It can remove stains and add support and buoyancy. (Remember that ships float higher in salt water than in fresh water.) So, what does it mean to be called to be salt, to have salt in yourselves, as the Scripture says? I mean, as we’ve said, salt has many uses. So maybe we are called to be multi-faceted, to not just walk one road toward that Presence of God that we think we have identified and nailed down in our lives, but to rather open ourselves to the notion that God appears when we least expect it. And we are called to be ready, to be open, to do whatever it is that God calls us to do in that moment. For such a time as this, we are called to be salt.
That’s still odd to us. Salt? But we need to remember that in the ancient world, the Greeks called salt divine. There were times when Roman soldiers would even receive their salaries in salt. In fact, the Latin word for “salt” is the root for “salary.” For the ancients, the two most important things in life were “sol” and “sal”, Sun and salt. Even today in Africa, workers often receive a portion of their pay in salt. When one is presented to a chief, it is expected that you would bring a gift of salt. Nelson Mandela once said, “Let there be work, bread, water, and salt for all.” So, to really understand this passage, we need to have an African view of salt. When we are told that we are salt, we are told that we are of great use and value in society. We must add flavor to everything we touch.
And yet, we all know that there is often something to be said for too much of a good thing. Like salt, we are not to overwhelm the world but to bring out the goodness, or preserve the goodness, that is already there. But remember salt is of no use to salt. We are part of a community. “Being salt” means that we are called to become that embodied Presence of God in the world and for the world and, rather than making everyone and everything into what reflects our own personal image of God, we are rather called to season what we touch so that the flavor that is God comes through. I
t’s important to note the use of the word “whoever”. The disciples probably thought that Jesus meant whoever of them, but Jesus left it open—whoever—anyone. He draws the circle wider. Once again, the disciples have missed the point. It is said that you can divide the world into two groups—those who think you can divide the world into two groups and those who don’t. Jesus never preached an “us and them” mentality. His message was much broader. Essentially, Jesus is saying that those who envision themselves aligned with him, supposedly working for the Kingdom “in his name” are kidding themselves. Unless one understands the Christian mission as the mission of Christ, one cannot claim to be acting in alignment with Jesus. Jesus was apparently not writing anyone off. He was not affirming that those around him had exclusive rights to the Gospel. Rather, he was calling us to nurture and nourish them in the faith and bring them into the fold (and possibly that the “fold” itself might look different than we figured out it should be).
- What meaning does this passage hold for you?
- What “stumbling blocks” are present in our world? In particular, what are “stumbling blocks” to others that are put up by Christians in the name of Christ?
- What stands in the way of our welcoming others in this way?
- What, for you, does the salt imagery mean in your Christian walk? What does it mean to be salt to the world?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
The moment we begin to fear the opinions of others and hesitate to tell the truth that is in us, and from motives of policy are silent when we should speak, the divine floods of light and life no longer flow into our souls. (Elizabeth Cady Stanton)
If I cannot find the face of Jesus in the face of those who are my enemies, if I cannot find him in the unbeautiful, if I cannot find him in those who have the “wrong ideas,” if I cannot find him in the poor and the defeated, how will I find him in the bread and wine, or in the life after death? If I do not reach out in this world to those with whom he has identified himself, why do I imagine that I will want to be with him, and them, in heaven? Why would I want to be for all eternity in the company of those I avoided every day of my life? (Jim Forest)
“The purpose of life is to serve and to show compassion and the will to help others. Only then have we ourselves become true human beings.” (Albert Schweitzer)
God, God bless our contradictions, those parts of us which seem out of character. Let us be boldly and gladly out of character. Let us be creatures of paradox and variety: creatures of contrast; of light and shade: creatures of faith. God be our constant. Let us step out of character into the unknown, to struggle and love and do what we will. Amen